Choo Choo Customs built far more vans than it did El Camino SSs, but to many fans, the spiced-up utes are the company’s crowning achievements. Despite their sometimes-ostentatious paint schemes, the van conversions often take a cushy back seat to the El Camino SS, a vehicle that never had a back seat at all.
Today, Choo Choo Customs’ El Camino SS has a loyal following. While the low-production SS doesn’t bring a tremendous premium over its normal ute brethren, several solid examples have sold recently on Bring a Trailer, with prices settling around $12K. Well-bought utes like this example make for head-turning, conversation-starting collectibles that double as the ultimate ’80s parts hauler and grocery getter.
Founded in 1975 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Choo Choo Customs turned utilitarian vans into luxurious conversions that made the highway miles soar by. It added second-row captain’s chairs, jazzed-up stereos, and eventually video game consoles to its freeway flyers. Soon, the company also began customizing short-bed pickups, crew-cab dualies, and Suburbans. The Suburbans could be optioned with many of the same amenities as the vans—including deluxe upholstery and high-roof conversions—on their way to becoming some of the ultimate road-trip machines.
SS conversions for El Caminos began in 1983 and lasted until the El Camino left production in 1987. Chevrolet had offered a factory version of the SS, but it looked just like every other El Camino, so the manufacturer contacted Choo Choo Customs to change that.
Choo Choo Customs started with regular El Caminos fitted with rally wheels and sport mirrors and replaced the stock El Camino fascia with a polyurethane nose like the one found on the Monte Carlo SS. Designers slapped decals on the tailgate, doors, and nose and added an emblem to the dash. The El Caminos were sold alongside the similar-styled Monte Carlo SS, although the coupes got a 180-hp, high-output version of the 305-cubic-inch small-block V-8 that was never offered on the El Camino SS. More details on the options can be found at El Camino Central.
The U.S. entered a recession in 1990 and van conversion companies suffered greatly. Choo Choo Customs went bankrupt in 1991, though it managed to rebound briefly. In the early 2000s the company went out of business for good and Honest Charley’s Speed Shop, part of the Coker Tire empire, purchased Choo Choo Customs’ remaining stock. The shop continues to offer the SS front-end conversion parts, only now they’re molded in fiberglass.
If you’re in the market for an authentic El Camino SS built by Choo Choo Customs, do your homework. Chevrolet claims Choo Choo Customs built 5000 examples but, according to El Camino Central, the actual number is closer to half that. Although these conversions lack performance tuning, the total number puts the Choo Choo Customs El Camino SS in the same category as other custom-from-the-dealership cars that received upgrades en route to showrooms, like the fourth-gen Camaros from SLP. The SS El Camino is not only relatively rare—it’s also the unusual combination of affordable, interesting, and, with its cargo bed, even practical.